Friday, October 10, 2008

A Beautiful Gathering of Friends and Family - Craft (Los Angeles)

When Craft first opened in Los Angeles in 2007, it was the subject of major hoopla, with many fans of the hit TV show Top Chef visiting the new restaurant in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the face of the hit series, Tom Colicchio, the Executive Chef-Owner of Craft. Adding to the buzz was the fact that Craft opened up near the new Creative Artists Agency building, which resulted in an interesting mix of clientele, with Hollywood's power brokers amongst fans of Top Chef (and those just looking to eat at an upscale restaurant :).

My first visit to Craft was about a year ago, when Craft had just debuted. We arrived on that evening, full of excitement and curiosity (note: I'm not a fan of Top Chef, so I was mainly curious about the food and atmosphere :). The restaurant was packed with many people waiting in the bar area for tables to free up. In general, I found the food to be decent, with some missteps: Their Pork Entree was really salty, and their Jerusalem Artichokes were oil-laden and far too salty as well. While the decor was gorgeous, the spotty service and over-use of sodium left me lukewarm on the restaurant. Flash-forward a year, and I had some dear friends that I needed to entertain. For some reason I wanted to give Craft another try and I booked reservations for a Saturday evening.

What a difference a year makes.

Perhaps it was because I had already been to Craft last year, or the fact that I had lower expectations after the first visit, but this time around, I went in completely relaxed, and was able to really soak in the atmosphere and total experience in a better light. While I remembered all the decor from last year's visit, this time I really appreciated Craft's stunning space, elegantly designed and beautifully appointed; it's one of the nicest-looking restaurants in L.A. with great mood lighting, and a wall of wine behind glass, which also borders a private dining room.

One interesting thing to note about Craft is that its imposing-looking menu is comprised of dishes that are meant to be shared, family-style. I've found it much easier to navigate with that understanding, and on this night we chose a few items from their First Courses section (which features a great selection of items from fish & shellfish such as the Albacore Tuna & Cornichon, to meat dishes like the Crispy Pig's Head & House Made Pickles, Quail & Wild Blueberry), some Pastas, a Salad, and then a selection from their Main Courses section, and a few Side Dishes (from their impressive Side Dishes menu, which tonight featured 24 different items!).

The sommelier recommended a bottle of the 2006 A.P. Vin Pinot Noir Turner Vineyard (Santa Rita Hills, California) for our meat dishes which turned out to be a great suggestion. The A.P. Vin had a nice, fragrant base, with some raspberry and cherry flavors with a bit of a spicy / peppery edge.

Chef de Cuisine Matthew Accarrino (who came over from Craftsteak New York) started us off with an Amuse Bouche of Roasted Calamari with Red Pepper Foam.

The Roasted Calamari was beautifully presented on cute and stylish, curled spoons. There was a slight, tender chew with each bite of the Calamari, and the Red Pepper Foam was just the right amount of spice that didn't overpower the protein itself. Refreshing.

Our first appetizer arrived at this point, and following Craft's philosophy, it was served at the center of the table for the party to share. The Roasted Pork Belly & Madras Curry, Medjool Dates was simply outstanding! There seems to be some type of Pork Belly dish at most of the major restaurants around town, and while there's never enough Pork Belly to go around, I wasn't sure what else could be done with Pork Belly that other restaurants hadn't done already.

But the Pork Belly was simply wonderful: The Madras Curry added this beautiful complexity to the Pork without taking center stage (just a touch of this interesting Curry note), and the Medjool Dates were just wonderful in bringing a sweet note to the mouth-watering goodness of the Pork Belly, which was perfectly cooked: Nice and crisp on the outside, with complete tenderness and buttery goodness inside. It wasn't too salty either, which was a problem I had a year ago. This was one of the best Pork Belly dishes I've had in L.A. the past two or three years.

Our order of Fanny Bay Oysters were nicely presented in a rustic, metallic serving tray filled with ice. The Fanny Bay Oysters were extremely fresh and had a beautiful, natural sweetness to them. Excellent!

Their Endive, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad arrived next. One of the best aspects about this dish was the nice contrast of flavors and textures: The Endive's bitterness provided a great foil for the wonderful pungent flavors of the Goat Cheese and the sweetness of the Walnuts. The textures were just as interesting with the crispness contrasting with the crunch and the crumbled.

It was around this time that I saw the subtle brilliance of Craft's family-style setup: There was a sense of relaxation and community as we were busy divvying up and trying the various dishes served in the middle of the table. While there's nothing special about a family-style meal, having it served this way in a fancy, upscale restaurant isn't very common. I looked around the dining room and noticed other tables - families, friends, business-types - sampling the dishes that were placed in the middle of their tables for all to share, and there just seemed to be a good vibe in general. (^_^)

Our next salad arrived soon after: Heirloom Tomato & Basil. While it's really easy to make at home, it was the perfect salad to balance out the heartier items we ordered that night. It arrived, beautifully arranged, with the striking colors inherent in Heirloom Tomatoes.

It was very simple - just a good selection of Heirloom Tomatoes, dressed with a good Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Basil - but it was perfect for the evening. It was *so* naturally sweet, fresh and refreshing at the same time. :)

Our next dish was inspired by the recent thread on Chowhound from RicRios. It should be noted that Craft lists the dish separately under the heading "Tuscan White Truffle," probably due to the buzz that happened about where the White Truffle was from during RicRios' visit. (^_~)

The Tuscan White Truffle, Fontina & Wild Mushroom Raviolo arrived and had a great aroma before the dish reached our table. For fun, I asked our waitress where the White Truffle was from, and she said it was from Tuscany, not Alba. :)

While not as pungent and deeply aromatic as the Alba White Truffle, this was a great pasta dish regardless! The Raviolo was cooked to just the right texture, and the Fontina Cheese combined with the Raviolo to support the star of the dish, the White Truffle, which added an intense earthy fragrance to every bite. After spending the summer with Summer Black Truffle dishes, it was really nice to get a taste of the White Truffle again, even if it wasn't Alban. Everyone at the table enjoyed this dish, and it was my friend from Japan's favorite of the evening. :)

Our first Main Course arrived next: Berkshire Rack Of Pork & Black Lentils. I was worried that this Pork Entree would be a repeat of the salt bomb I had on my first visit, but after taking just one bite, all my worries were gone in an instant: Super-tender pieces of delicious Pork that were just perfectly seasoned (with none of the salt problems I experienced previously).

This is what Berkshire Pork dishes should be like. It was so tender, I thought it might've been prepared sous-vide, and the pairing with the Black Lentils was spot-on, with a nice earthy undertone added to the Berkshire Pork. What was even more amazing was that the tenderness wasn't due to excessive fat (this wasn't Pork Belly), but due to a good cooking technique and great execution by Chef Accarrino. One of my favorites of the night! :)

Our Sides arrived at the same time, and we began with their Potatoes Puree. This was highly recommended by our enthusiastic server, and after taking one bite, everyone at the table agreed: Wow! These Pureed Potatoes were *so* smooth and delicate. While I normally like a more rustic mashed/smashed potatoes dish, it's really nice to have a more refined Potato dish once in a while. Very nice.

We also ordered a side of Roasted Baby Shiitake Mushrooms. These were nice and fragrant and Shiitake Mushrooms are one of my favorites, so I had nothing but smiles with this dish. (^_~)

The Diver Sea Scallops & Brown Butter arrived next. These Diver Sea Scallops had a great sear on the outside while retaining a perfect, moist tender core. They tasted very fresh, lightly sweet and the amount of Butter was just right, adding that delicious note of fragrant fat that only Butter can provide. :)

Our last Side arrived as well: Braised Tuscan Kale. The Tuscan Kale was braised in Veal Stock and carried a surprisingly strong vinegary tart note. But after a couple bites, this was a great pairing for our Main Courses, with the tang provided a balance for the oily / fatty aspects of our Mains.

Our final Main arrived: Braised Beef Short Rib & Root Vegetables. While visually, it looked a bit imposing and possibly overcooked, breaking it apart and taking a bite, we discovered a delicious, superbly cooked Short Rib.

The Beef was fork tender, and the Red Wine reduction is a classic pairing with Beef, and worked well here. It was also nice in that it wasn't as fatty as some interpretations of Braised Beef that I've had recently at other local restaurants; just a really delicious, slow-cooked Beef dish. :)

At this point I was pretty full, but my wonderful companions have a sweet tooth and I heard so many good things about Pastry Chef Catherine Schimenti's creations that I acquiesced to the temptation of the Dessert Menu. (^_~)

We began with a complementary palate cleanser: Yogurt Panna Cotta, Wine Spice Granita. It was pretty tart on the first bite, but the initial sour note dissipated behind the Yogurt Panna Cotta, and helped to clear the palate for our dessert courses.

We started with a Cheese Course, with a Sheep's Milk Cheese from Burgundy. It was served with a nice selection of Walnuts, Figs, Honey Comb Gel (my favorite pairing! :), and Muscat Grapes, amongst other things. The Sheep's Milk Cheese was a bit too pungent for my tastes, more pungent than most Sheep's Milk Cheeses I've had in the past, but my companions enjoyed it.

The Chocolate Souffle with Chai Anglaise & Ceylon Cinnamon Ice Cream arrived first. While the Chocolate Souffle by itself was pure, clean Chocolate Heaven, with a bit of the Ceylon Cinnamon Ice Cream and a drizzle of the Chai Anglaise, it was transformed into Pure Bliss! This was *so* delicious and a nice change from the typical dessert selections. :)

But the next dessert turned me into a total Catherine Schimenti fan: Peanut Butter Cup with Peanut Brittle, Caramel Gelee & Caramel Gelato. We all know that Peanut Butter and Chocolate can work well together from a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, but who knew it could be elevated to such heights?! An absolutely fragrant, nutty taste from a freshly made Peanut Butter Cup, dabbed in some house-made Peanut Brittle, and the Caramel Gelee and Gelato was just... the best melding of Peanut Butter and Caramel and Chocolate that I've ever come across anywhere. I was so happy! (^_^)

Our final Dessert was Chef Catherine's Glazed Donuts with Lemon Thyme, Vanilla Custard, Raspberry Jam & Chocolate Pudding. This was a cute deconstruction of different flavored Donuts, allowing the customer to dab and flavor the basic house-made Glazed Donut however they felt like.

Out of all the flavors, my favorite was probably the Raspberry Jam. The Donut itself was a bit deceptive: At first it tasted a tad dense and almost too "thin" (not as airy as a traditional neighborhood donut), but as I took a second and third bite and was pairing it with the various flavors, Craft's donut really grew on me and it turned out to be a great base to pair with the other flavors.

As we asked for our bill, Craft provided us with some complementary Petit Fours. I was so full at this point, I could barely nibble at the Round Caramel Petit Four, but my dining companions enjoyed both flavors. :)

They also gave us some complementary, freshly-made Muffins for "breakfast" the following day, which was a nice touch. :)

I was so impressed with Craft that evening, especially with its family-style serving, that I wanted to return for another visit to try their Tasting Menu, to see how Chef Accarrino's other dishes would fare, and to see how different a Tasting Menu experience would be in the Craft setting.

On my third visit to Craft, the Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing were the order of the day. The Amuse Bouche arrived with the first wine pairing:

2007 Nessa Albarino (Spain)
Truffle Custard, Truffle Vinaigrette

The Truffle Custard was surprisingly acidic, with the Truffle Vinaigrette overpowering everything else in the dish. But when paired with the 2007 Nessa Albarino wine, it was a fantastic pairing in every way! It was strange, but it felt like the Truffle Custard dish was there to help bring out the flavors of the wine and highlight the Albarino, and not the other way around.

With some of the Truffle Custard and Truffle Vinaigrette, the Nessa Albarino's acidity was stripped away and you could really pick up the aromatic notes of pear and apple in the wine.

The second Amuse Bouche was Sea Urchin with Watercress. It was served over diced chunks of Apple, and by itself, the Sea Urchin was about a ~92% fresh rating (really fresh, with just a touch of the unpleasant brininess that gets worse as Sea Urchin degrades over time (most average Sushi restaurants' Uni would rate about a ~50-60% being really briny, pungent and gross)). The Watercress wasn't really noticeable due to the Sea Urchin, but surprisingly this, too, paired really well with the 2007 Albarino! The Sea Urchin, like the Truffle Custard (but in a different way), helped highlight the fruity notes of the wine and make it really stand out. This was just a great pairing.

The next dish was brought out before my next Wine Pairing (the only hiccup in the pairing for the evening, thankfully):

2007 Nessa Albarino (Spain)
Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna, Kaffir Lime & Fennel Gastrique

The Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna looked like it was nicely seared and properly cooked, but sadly, it wasn't: The Tuna turned out to be dry, mealy and overcooked, despite its raw center. The Fennel and Kaffir Lime were nice contrasts of flavors and a good starter, but the Tuna was just unpleasant.

It was surprising that it was the same Wine Pairing as well, but after tasting the dish with the 2007 Albarino, I found it to be another great pairing.

The next course arrived soon after:

2006 Quivira Grenache Dry Creek Valley (California)
Veal Tortellini, Fava Leaves, Saffron & Tomato

The Veal Tortellini was decent: The pasta was slightly undercooked (I bit into a "crunchy" bit of hard dough a few times), but the Veal itself was flavorful and nice and savory. But the standout would have to be the fresh Tomato Saffron Sauce. Wonderfully light with a good, strong infusion of Saffron, it really saved this dish.

By itself the 2006 Quivira Grenache was really tart and acidic, but when paired with the Veal Tortellini, this turned out to be another outstanding pairing: All that was left were wonderful notes of blueberries and other berries.

2005 Chateau de Cosse Sauternes (France)
Roasted Foie Gras, Quince, Sunchoke & Wildflower Honey

The plate came out very hot (with a friendly warning from the server), and the reason was to heat up and release some nice aromas from the spice blend on the edges of the plate. I could smell freshly-ground Coriander amongst other exotic spices that really intrigued me before I even took a bite (really nice).

The Foie Gras was simply perfect: Creamy and buttery, the Quince puree was spot-on, and the Wildflower Honey added another complementary facet to each bite, but it was just a touch too sweet at times. But skipping the Wildflower Honey, there was an intense savory creaminess that was the highlight of the evening!

This was another great pairing with the 2005 Sauternes being wonderfully light, clean and very well-rounded. It had nice apple and apricot notes and was enjoyable by itself and even better with the Foie Gras.

2005 Castellare Chianti Classico (Tuscany, Italy)
Australian Suzuki Pot Pie, Shell Beans & Shellfish Broth

This was a nice presentation with the Pot Pie being served tableside, with the puff pastry top cut open in front of the table, and then the ingredients removed and served on top of the inner pastry lid. A good Pot Pie is always hard to find and a fancy interpretation would be even better. The Australian Suzuki (Sea Bass) turned out to be really bland and mundane, unfortunately. The Shell Beans didn't fare much better, with the highlight being the intensely savory-sweet Pearl Onions.

The Wine Pairing had me slightly perplexed as well, with the 2005 Castellare Chianti being far too heavy for the Sea Bass for my tastes. The flavors didn't match very well at all, and overall I found the Sea Bass Pot Pie and the Pairing to be the worst of the evening.

2003 Movia Pinot Nero (Slovenia)
Guinea Hen, Pink Pearl Apple Crepe & Easter Egg Radish

The Guinea Hen dish was separated into two portions: The white meat Guinea Hen (which I was fearing would be dry or tough), turned out to be the highlight of the dish: Extremely tender and light! The Guinea Hen breast meat had this gorgeous, intense flavor that was inherent to fresh Guinea Hen and was simply outstanding! The Apple Crepe felt extraneous to how good the Guinea Hen was by itself.

The other portion of the dish was the dark meat of the Guinea Hen, compressed together and wrapped in Caul Fat to reduce down. On paper, this sounded delicious, but ultimately it was surprisingly dry(!) and mealy. Really disappointing.

And the 2003 Movia Pinot Nero really clashed with the flavors of the white meat, delicate Guinea Hen, but paired really well with the dark meat portion (with its much richer, heavier reduction sauce).

2003 Holus-Bolus Syrah (California)
Wagyu Skirt Steak (Miyazaki, Japan), Savory Bread Pudding, Yellowfoot Mushrooms & Tuscan Kale

From the moment I saw this dish, I could tell it was something special. The Wagyu Skirt Steak from Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan was simply beautiful, with a great sear on the outside while retaining the gorgeous rare to medium-rare inside. Taking a bite, the Wagyu Steak was probably *the* most intensely flavored Skirt Steak I've ever had, referring only to the inherent beef flavor. This was Carne Asada on steroids (and more elegant :), just a good lean steak! I've been spoiled on A5 Wagyu and prefer slightly fattier cuts of steak, but for a good lean steak, this was excellent.

The Yellowfoot Mushrooms tasted about the same as the Baby Shiitake I had the previous week, but the Savory Bread Pudding was a wonderfully buttery piece of toasted goodness. :)

The 2003 Holus-Bolus Syrah was interesting, with the waiter explaining that the label with the 8 arms of the Octopus represented the 4 wine makers (and their 2 arms each) that came together to put out this Syrah. :) It tasted really aggressive and had a woodsy note. I didn't really enjoy this by itself, but when paired with the Wagyu Skirt Steak, it turned out to be much better, with the Steak helping to peel away the acidity.

At this time, Chef Accarrino also wanted to share a complementary tasting of a 1986 Chateau Beychevelle Grand Vin (Saint Julien, France), which he felt would be an excellent pairing with the Miyazaki Wagyu Skirt Steak. It was really nice: There was an amazing, velvety mouthfeel with each sip of the 1986 Chateau Beychevelle Bordeaux. It was really delicate and soft and had a really nice aroma as well, and was perfect with the Wagyu.

The Cheese course came next:

Blandy's Madeira, Aged 15 Years
Picolo Cheese (Petaluma, California)

The Picolo Cheese was a Cow's Milk Cheese which was a bit too sharp for my tastes. It paired nicely with each of the items on the Cheese Plate, however, with the Fig being my favorite match for the Picolo.

The Madeira, 15 Years was really sweet and intense, and became cloying after a few sips. It matched well with the Picolo Cheese, however.

The first dessert arrived next:

2007 Moscato di Asti Elio Perrone (Italy)
Creme Fraiche Bavarois, Lemon Verbena & Concord Grape

The Creme Fraiche Bavarois tasted more like a Panna Cotta than a Bavarois, but it was still tasty. (^_~) It was delicate and smooth, with the Concord Grape Gelato providing a nice tart balance to the Creme Fraiche Bavarois.

The 2007 Moscato di Asti was really flowery and sweet, but it worked nicely with the Bavarois.

The final dessert course arrived next:

2007 Moscato di Asti Elio Perrone (Italy)
Pineapple Tatin, Avocado & Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream

The Pineapple Tatin sounded great, but turned out to be too tart, with the Avocado doing nothing to quell the problem, and not really adding a lot to the dish. The Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream was a really nice flavor experiment, with a peppery sweetness with each bite of the ice cream, and it helped to smooth out the sharpness in the Pineapple Tatin. It wasn't my favorite dessert at Craft, but it was decent. It turned out to be an excellent pairing with the Moscato, however.

The Tasting Menu ended with complementary Petit Fours (from right-to-left): Coconib, Caramel, Maple, Quince. They were all delicious, house-made candies, but by this point I was beyond full and realized after trying them that I should have just taken them home for the next day. :)

And like the previous visit, Craft also brought out complementary Muffins, this time being a house-made Pumpkin Muffin, Vanilla Streusel.

Service can make or break a dining experience and Craft's service has been inconsistent: On my first visit last year, our servers were professional, but aloof and not always attentive to our needs. During the second visit, our server was excellent, always there to make sure our dishes came out in a timely manner, and attending to any needs we had, and with a warm, great attitude. For my third visit (with the Tasting Menu), the server was friendly, but clueless about many of the dishes, unable to answer any basic questions about the food, and forgetting about one of the Wine Pairings, and then disappearing completely before I could ask for the bill (I had to get another server to help out instead). Our total for the first two visits (family-style, ordering from the main menu) came out to be about ~$100 per person (including tax and tip). For the Tasting Menu with Wine Pairing, it turned out to be ~$230 per person (including tax and tip).

Craft Los Angeles has blossomed into a fine, upscale dining destination, with a wonderful, family-style philosophy to its main menu courses, a gorgeous dining room, and most importantly some outstanding dishes. Looking back at the multiple visits, while there were some interesting creations and a few highlights, the Tasting Menu was average at best (but with great wine pairings by Sommelier David Lusby), and it also distanced and isolated the dining experience back to an individual feeling, which at that point, Craft was reduced to another "pretty, fancy restaurant."

But ordering from their main menu, with all their dishes served at the center of the table, family-style, this subtle, seemingly small facet changes the dining experience at Craft: It engenders a feeling of sharing and coming together, whether it be an ice-breaker, or just opening up the table to more conversations and a shared experience with the wonderful variety of savory food and delicious desserts. I may be looking too much into it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the family-style dining at one of L.A.'s most elegant restaurants. Craft Los Angeles still needs to improve its service, and while some of the dishes fail to impress, it delivers too many outstanding creations from Chef Accarrino and wonderful desserts from Pastry Chef Schimenti not to take notice of this fine dining establishment. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

Craft Los Angeles
10100 Constellation Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 279-4180

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.


kevinEats said...

I glad to see that they formally offer a tasting menu now. Last time I was there, they had to do it as a special request for me, and it was mostly items from the menu.

Food, she thought. said...

Your post is knocking my socks off. I have passed on Craft thus far because I was not in love with the Craft New York...but your post has generated a new lemming.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kevin,

Yah, it's nice to have that option, and usually (like you), I enjoy Tasting Menus more than just ordering off the regular menu, but in this case, I found their seasonal / updating Main Menu to be more enjoyable on the whole.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, She Thought,

Thank you. (^_^) Yah, Chef Accarrino and Pastry Chef Schimenti really surprised me and all the companions I've brought there.

It's a nice atmosphere and fun to be sharing dishes in that setup. :)

edjusted said...

Well, I gotta admit that this sounds much much better than ramen! Haha.
It was nice meeting you Saturday!

Craft sounds amazing. Great review. I'll have to keep eating ramen till I can save up to go there! :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Edjusted,

Thank you. Nice seeing you, too! :) Yah, Craft is a nice place if you need a celebration / special event place. Let me know if you end up going. :)

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